By Will Cooling for WrestlingObserver.com
With the announcement that Daniel Cormier next defends his ‘world title’ against Alexander Gustafsson, there’s one question above all others that needs answering - why does the UFC need to keep giving title shots to people who lost their last fight?
It’s not as if this was always the case. In the first five years of their TUF-fueled boom, the UFC gave title shots to three men who were coming off losses, but by my count since the start of 2010, they have announced fourteen title matches involving someone who had not won their last match.
Some of these didn’t happen but most did. What explanation is there for this trebling of such instances? The promotion has more fighters than ever before so a lack of fighter depth shouldn’t be an issue, and with increased television rights fees and greater live ticket sales, they’re less dependent on pay per view than ever before.
The only explanation: something has gone wrong with their booking.
Look back at those three instances between 2005 and 2009. Two of them were due to the UFC reintegrating fighters who had been fighting in Japan. Dan Henderson’s status as a double-weight world champion led to him being booked in back-to-back unification matches with the then-UFC champions. Meanwhile, BJ Penn substituting for an injured Georges St. Pierre after losing to GSP in his previous fight was karmic as it was only Penn’s odd demand to first face St. Pierre upon his return that stopped the UFC booking the rematch with Matt Hughes that everyone else wanted to see.
There were no such promotional politics surrounding Randy Couture challenging Tim Sylvia for the UFC heavyweight title. Couture was brought out of retirement simply due to Sylvia bombing on top as champion and the division as a whole lacking credible challengers. It was unquestionably the right match to make at the time but equally there’s no escaping it was also a damning testament to the complete failure of both the fighters and the promotion to make fans care about the division.
It’s clear that today’s light heavyweight division is a similar disaster zone.
When Ryan Bader is the contender with the longest winning streak, there’s no denying the division has problems. But to match a champion who’s best known for being completely outclassed by the man whose belt he’s wearing against someone who last time out got knocked out in three minutes is to invite ridicule. And if a title is seen as ridiculous then it may as well not exist. Rather than praise the UFC booking team for making Cormier/Gustafsson, we should condemn them for the mess they’ve made of what was once their marquee division.
The UFC finds itself in a corner due to not thinking through the consequences of the matches it books. By booking Gustafsson vs. Johnson back in January, the UFC ensured that a challenger both marketable and credible would receive a damaging loss. They did this because they prioritised eking out the highest viewing figures possible for FOX. Now imagine if they had kept one eye on their medium-term interests. They could have kept the two hottest challengers to Jones away from each other by putting Gustafsson against Bader. Yes, this may have secured a marginally less impressive rating but it would have kept both Gustafsson and Johnson on the road to a title shot. By greedily sacrificing a legitimate contender for one night’s ratings, they hurt their pay per view business for the rest of the year.
Their handling of Alexander Gustafsson also shows the promotion’s laziness.
If you remember last year, many people were annoyed that the Swede was to be quickly rematched against Jones due to believing that Cormier was the more worthwhile challenger. The argument from those who defended the move was that the legend of his fight with Jones was so great that even though Cormier had a long, impressive winning streak that it was Gustafsson who would do the better business. This argument for running with a pat-hand was exposed as the unthinking conservatism it was by how effectively Cormier promoted the fight after Gustafsson withdrew due to injury.
This should not have been a surprise considering that Cormier is easily the most charismatic fighter in the division and had long been cutting great promos on Jones. Of course, we’re meant to forget that the same arguments being used for not giving Bader a chance are exactly the same that were used against booking the biggest money fight of the year so far.
Like Cormier back in 2014, Bader isn’t a bigger star than Gustafsson. But whereas Gustafsson has never shown any aptitude or interest in hyping his fights, Bader has been pushing himself into the limelight like never before. He spectacularly built on his grudge with Cormier by gatecrashing the new ‘champion’s’ post-victory press conference, something that has now been seen by more than a million people on YouTube. It’s the type of platform that back in 2009 the UFC would have tried to use to build a superstar.
Combat sports matchmaking is an art not a science. So, of course, there will always be odd situations that necessitate instant rematches or letting the more marketable fighter jump the queue despite them having lost their last fight. But Daniel Cormier vs. Alexander Gustafsson is neither of these. It’s the logical result of a company too greedy to book matches with the slightest consideration for anything other than its short-term interests and too lazy to put the extra work in to maximise the potential of fighters that have yet to be given the chance to headline. This is not admirable matchmaking but in fact the same toxic mix of hotshotting and conservativism that we all condemn when we see it in the WWE.
Will Cooling is a regular contributor to Fighting Spirit Magazine, the UK's biggest and best pro-wrestling monthly, available worldwide through its Apple and Android App. In this month’s issue, he reviewed Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao and recent UFC Events. FSM is available in all good British newsagents and internationally. He also blogs on politics and sports at It Could Be Said.